On Your Own
What is this?
This is a full, detailed 2-hour written tour of the Moscow Metro. You can do it alone or with a group of friends.
How do I use it?
You better buy a Russian SIM-card and read it online from this web-page on any of your mobile devices: phones or even better tablets. Simply read everything that's written here and follow pictures that show you where to go. You can scroll through some text and skip some stops to speed it up at any moment along the way, it's up to you. But there might be some rare moments where the later information will refer to something written above.
What will I see?
This is a tour of the 6 most beautiful central metro stations. Ploschad' Revolutsii, Kurskaya, Komsomol'skaya, Novoslobodskaya, Belorusskaya nad Mayakovskaya and everything in between them.
Where do I start?
The tour starts at the entrance to Ploschad' Revolutsii station. The place is just 50-60 meters away from Red Square. Go out of GUM Department Store on the opposite side from Saint Basil's Cathedral, turn right, walk about 60 meters until the first turn right along the way, turn there and you'll see it.
Right off the bat you get the sense that this is not going to be your average metro system. With its marble walls and classical ornaments this lobby serves as a great introduction for what's to come on this tour.
It was added a decade after the station itself was built and celebrates the 30th anniversary of the October Revolution of 1917. You can see years 1917-1947 written on the wall above the ticket windows as well as the first verse and refrain of the original Soviet state anthem (with the same Soviet words) on the left and right parts of that wall.
But before we buy our tickets and go inside, let's start with
the overall metro's history and structure. Take a look at the big map of the system next to the metal detectors that will tell us all about it:
Moscow Metro today is one of the biggest and most complex metro systems on the planet. Today (in 2019) it has 260 stations spread across its 14 underground lines, 1 monorail line and that giant above-the-ground railway that serves as the system's second circle. It is, as well, one of the fastest growing ones. Here's some dusty plan from the early 00s of the system's development until 2100:
Back then it looked quite crazy. But today it seems not just doable but even somewhat tame. Over the last 5-6 years the metro has been growing with the pace of 5-10 new stations a year. And 2018 was an absolute record-breaker with 17 (!!!) new stops being opened throughout it. With such speed they'll certainly out-build that old plan in no time.
But it wasn't always as big. It all started in the distant 1935 with just one humble line of 13 stations crossing the center of Moscow. Of course, under the leadership of Joseph Stalin back then no other color could've been used first but red. You can still see on the map that the red line has number '1' assigned to it.
The first line was quite shallow and the stations looked rather uninspired. It did feature a couple of marble mosaics here and there and just lot of marble everywhere in general. But the main goal of the first line was to prove to everyone the system's functionality other than its propaganda value.
It wouldn't take much time, though, for people in government offices to realize how such a popular means of public transport could be used in their ideological purposes. Starting with 2nd and 3rd lines more and more stations receive special topical designs themed around stations' names or famous sights and streets above them, feature inspirational images of very happy and dedicated Soviet workers and farmers, and simply start utilizing many classical architectural elements to make sure that Soviet people are always reminded that they are living in the greatest, mightiest country in the world.
Just as it's true for the buildings above the ground, the culmination of 'epicness' of the metro's architecture fell on the last years of Stalin's life. The last line built under his leadership was number 5 - the brown circle line, where almost every stop turned into a masterpiece worth seeing. 60s through 90s saw the return to the very utilitarian style that it all started with. And then in the modern days the metro's been trying, quite successfully, to resurrect the custom of building amazing looking stops, which it keeps doing till this day. Check this 2018 'CSKA' stop, for example, with bronze statues of famous hockey players in the center:
Today we'll focus on 6 most important historic stations beneath the city center and see all 3 great-looking early lines that I mentioned above - green, blue and brown. This will be our today's route:
Go buy your tickets through either ticket windows or those special vending machines:
If you need a suggestion on what tickets you better buy, you can check this article.
The way the turnstiles work is that you hold your ticket close to a yellow scanner circle on your right and pass through the opened gates on the left.
Make sure you don't wave or swipe that ticket, otherwise it might not read it correctly. You have to hold it still above the scanner for at least half a second for it to work properly.
After you've past the gates, step onto the only available downward escalator and prepare for your metro journey to begin:
Revolution Square (Ploschad' Revolutsii)
It is one of the earliest stations of the system built in 1938. It won't win a special prize for its size, but it certainly might do so for its design. One of the most densely decorated out there, it features 76 bronze statues on one single platform. Not something you would expect from a metro station at all.
All 76 are made of real bronze and sculpted based on real actors. All are made by the same sculptor Matvey Manizer and his students. The man who's also famous for taking Stalin's death mask in 1953.
Today the names of only two real human models are
known. A sophomore military academy student posing for this statue would end up dancing with the Queen Elisabeth II during her coronation in 1953:
And another student from this sculpture would eventually participate in the battles with Japan during the WWII and be given the title of the 'Hero of the Soviet Union', the highest honorary military title at the time:
But overall, the sculptor tried to represent in every image an exemplary member of a certain Soviet profession or simply of Soviet society. As such, you can see sculptures showing Soviet soldiers, workers, farmers, athletes, students and parents. So that regardless of what people were doing in life back then, everyone could find an inspirational image for himself here.
Everyone looks happy, healthy and overwhelmingly inspired to serve Soviet ideals. Also, everyone looks like just becoming a member of the Communist Party would give you abs. This guy seems to have been posing for some 'Magic Mike' promotional image instead:
But, apparently, not to everyone it appeared so instantly inspirational. As a very dangerous but popular joke, for which people could've been literally arrested, circulated right after the opening. It said that the sculptures paint a very precise picture of condition of Soviet population, where 'half of all people are 'sitting' and the other half is on their knees'. ('To seat' is a Russian slang term with several-hundred-year history that means to sit in prison).
But the most notable thing about the statues is, of course, the fact that you can see their bronze shining from beneath the layer of paint in certain spots.
Yes, people in Russia tend to be quite superstitious in general. And whenever something is said to bring luck or anything else after just a touch, a lot of people here would rather not miss out on such an opportunity. You might find several other places like that across the country throughout your trip. But nowhere else in such quantity.
On this platform touching almost every statue means something. Baby's foot should bring fertility, rooster - money, the shoe of a student girl would heal the wounds from unrequited love:
But the most popular and the most touched of all is that dog's nose:
It is said to have started being touched by students in the Soviet Union wishing for luck in the upcoming exams on that animal. And later everyone gradually started joining in. By today, so many people have done it that on one side the shape of that nose has flattened out a bit:
Just stay in front of one of those dogs for a couple of minutes and see for yourself. It is absolutely amazing how many people touch it per minute. Almost every 10th person passing by regardless of age or nationality. Here's even a picture of Hugh Jackman doing it:
It's not clear which one of the 4 he touched, but one might have more of that Hollywood luck in it that the rest.
Which brings us to the fact that yes, there are 4 copies of every statue on the platform. So i guess , if you rob all 4 noses, it'll bring you 4 times the luck or something like that.
There's an interesting story about those copies. During the WWII all the sculptures from here were evacuated to Central Asia. But due to bad transportation conditions, all of them fell into pieces somewhere along the way. And instead of full figures the metro received back a heap disjointed legs, hands and heads after the war ended. So even though there were enough parts to eventually restore all the sculptures, since there were a lot of identical ones, it is very likely that many of them swapped body parts with each other.
Now, find the track that leads in the eastern direction towards Kurskaya station, take a train there and travel one station on it:
Kurskaya (blue line)
Kurskaya was also built in the same 1938. It is named after the city of Kursk some 600 km to the south-west from Moscow. The name might sound familiar because later, during the WWII, in the suburbs of this city the biggest tank battle in human history between Soviet and Nazi tanks would take place.
The station doesn't look that much inspired, especially comparing to the other stops we'll see next. But it is the first on our way to feature this very important innovation, without which your tourist experience in the system would not have been complete. Let me introduce you... (drum roll) Selfie Spots!
Yes, even today after the city has successfully hosted the World Cup there are still places here and there in the underground that might overwhelm you with the amount of Cyrillic letters without translations. If it feels like that to you at any point, know that this is already the maximally improved version of the system's signs. There had been almost literally nothing for tourists at all until 2013-14.
But whenever you feel any doubt about where to go, now you can cheer yourself up by taking a selfie on the specially designed, scientifically calculated perfect spot for you to do it. It would likely not help you at all, but might make you feel like the metro administration is thinking about your needs, even if sometimes not about the most pressing ones.
Those spots are all over the system, in the centers of the most beautiful stations. We'll see a couple more along the way.
The station itself here is rather plain, and we're here just to switch lines. Let's go straight to the ones that really matter and see an incredible entrance to this stop along the way.
Take the only available upward escalator at one of the ends of the platform:
While on the escalator
Fun fact about the metro changing its signs, by the way. Inspired by the example of the British Underground that did something similar a while ago, Moscow Metro decided to sell the old direction signs, that they were recently replacing, to the public.
As of today (early 2019) you can still buy one in one of the metro's official souvenir stores, like the one at the entrance to Mayakovskaya station, for example. Real signs from real metro stations, with back lighting and without, ranging from 2000-10000 RUB a piece. It would certainly raise eyebrows in the airport, but you can buy them even as a foreigner.
Kurskaya (lobby between stations)
Besides the fact that this space looks like a lobby of a 5-star hotel that somehow, accidentally, got stuck in the middle of the metro, it also features another recent innovation. A much more useful one this time. A special spot on the floor for official metro musicians.
The people likely to be playing there at the moment are not just random street artists. They've been officially certified by the metro to perform here. Today, anyone who wants to play music in the system has to go through some selection process and prove that he/she's good enough. And even after that, they can only perform on those special red spots on the ground scattered throughout the system, like the one you can see under the musicians right now:
Musicians even have to reserve a particular time slot for themselves on the metro's website before coming there. Whether they themselves enjoy the new system is unclear, but the average quality of performances has significantly jumped up even since this 'Music in the Metro' program was launched.
On special occasions and public holidays, you even have a chance of encountering a more or less famous celebrity performing on one of them. Although when they do it, they are likely getting paid by the city's administration, unlike the artists you see there now that subsist solely on tips.
And if you think that this is the amazing entrance that I promised to show, think twice. The truly amazing stuff is still ahead.
Follow the arrows on those pictures to our next stop. You have to pass through the exit turnstiles and climb a set of stairs:
Kurskaya (entrance lobby)
Now, this is how you make an entrance to an average metro station when you're Stalin. The space looks more like a Roman temple than anything else. It's just that in places of classical gods you see statues of Soviet workers and farmers. All women, by the way (#feminism?).
It was very characteristic of Stalinist architecture to bear more and more resemblance to classical designs as time progressed. A stark contrast to the early constructivist projects of the 20s, where every element was designed with the sense of purpose and functionality, and all excessive decorations stripped off.
In a way, you can say that the more blatantly brutal Stalin's regime started turning against freedom of expression and its own people, the more convincing it had to do to keep everyone working. And as one of the greatest means of propaganda, architecture kept rapidly adding scale and pompousness the longer Stalin lived. That became specifically evident after the end of the WWII. Because together with successfully putting an end to one great conflict, Stalin managed to almost simultaneously open another.
The following Cold War between the rivaling superpowers was a great reason for both sides to start investing more in self-aggrandizing propaganda. And Stalinist architecture was definitely to play a part in showing everyone, domestically and abroad, the superiority of the Soviet model.
This lobby was built in 1950, opened simultaneously with several stations that would form the first chunk of the circle metro line. And the circle was completed months after Stalin's death in 1953. So all the stations on the brown line together with this entrance remain today as one of the greatest examples of the so-called Stalinist Empire style. And this is how things are going to look like from now on, since the brown circle line is where we are going next.
But first, let's point out some Stalin here. Because back then, together with increasing grandness of the architecture, also rapidly grew the cult of his personality. His photos, paintings, statues and mosaics could be found almost on every corner. And as many other propaganda art pieces, the metro, especially its nicest stations were significantly affected by it. Every station that we're going to see on the circle line going forward had at least one Stalin image at some point.
'Had' because shortly after his death the new leader, Nikita Khrushchev, sharply denounced this cult as being contrary to socialist principles and detrimental to country's image and future development. From 1961 to 1963 as part of the broader 'de-stalinisation' campaign thousands of Stalin images were removed from public places all across the country. Only a part of them ended up in museums, the majority - simply destroyed.
This entrance is a rare example of the modern government trying to bring some of that Stalin back. The inscriptions you can see above columns is the full second verse of the Soviet anthem that used to mention his name. Despite the name being removed from the anthem in the 60s and the whole inscription removed from here completely at about the same time; modern metro administration, for some inexplicable reason, decided that it would be a great idea to bring the letters back during a renovation of this room in 2008. It triggered some negative reactions and debates in the media, but apparently, not enough for the metro to care. And so thanks to their efforts, you can still see Stalin's name right above you. The full inscription reads, 'Through storms the sunshine of freedom and great Lenin lit up our path. And Stalin raised us and inspired us for loyalty to our people, for great deeds and labor'. Here's the word Lenin:
And here - Stalin:
And despite how controversial that Stalin restoration here might seem, at least we can always thank the people who were doing it for not restoring everything reminding of him in this place. Because if this lobby looks like a temple, it would be natural to expect to see some sort of central deity image in its altar. Something like this, for example:
Notice where those circles on the ceiling are. It was a giant 7-8-meter tall statue that was removed from here in the early 60s and destroyed. It's funny to see what's put in its place today - a surveillance camera. Sort of reminding you that Big Brother might be gone, but someone still watching your every move from behind those lenses.
Let's go back inside the system and proceed to the most impressive line of all - the circle line. Go downstairs and use your metro ticket once more time to pass through the entrance gates again. If you ran out of rides, buy a new ticket in the ticket windows next to the entrance doors to this lobby before taking the stairs.
While on the escalator
Notice how there are no ads anywhere in the system today (as of March 2019). All those hooks along the walls of many tunnels here were originally placed for advertisement billboards. But the company selling all those spaces at some point around 2014-15 said that economy is going out the window, no one's buying ads anymore, and they're not making any money. So they just gave up and quit one day.
The metro said that it's all fine, economy is doing great, we'll find some other company instead. Twice since then, with two other different companies, they tried to renew ad selling in the system. Both times coming to the same result of 90% of all billboards being empty and companies giving
up and quitting like the original one.
So if you've been asking yourself anything about economic sanctions, their consequences and the general state of Russian economy; this example might suggest that some areas get affected more than the others, and that some damage is definitely being done.
This lack of ads applies to everything in the metro including the trains. However, you might find a lot of public announcements everywhere, mostly sponsored by the government of Moscow, warning of pickpocketing, dangers of indiscriminate intimate relations or even something more creative, like this one I personally saw inside a train around 2014:
Says, 'Got pregnant? Give birth!' No pressure.
On the other hand, absence of all that distraction makes the metro today even more appealing as a tourist attraction than ever before, making it easier to enjoy its architecture and not another H&M advertisement. So congrats for coming here at the right time.
By now you should've gotten to Kurskaya station of the brown line. Take a train on the left side, as seen from the escalator you just used to get down. The train should be going to Komsomol'skaya station. Travel one stop on it.
Komsomol'skaya (brown line)
This stop alone would make it worthwhile to do this tour. If the previous great-looking station resembled a temple, then this one, here, is nothing short of a palace. It is stations like this that earned this system its unofficial nickname 'People's Palaces'.
It was built in 1952 and is called Komsomol'skaya after the famous Komsomol youth movement that existed in the Soviet days. The most essential organisation for a student back then to join to build successful future for himself. The public square right above us now took the name Komsomol'skaya in 1933 to commemorate the 15th anniversary since the movement's creation. And all metro
stations underneath it were later named after that square.
But considering how big the station was planned to be and the fact that it was being designed by one of the most renowned Russian architect of all times, Alexey Schusev, at some point they, apparently, decided not to waste time and space on students here and decorate the interior, instead, with something more important. And what can be more important in Russia than... Russian military history.
That's right, the line of 8 sizable mosaics on the ceiling represents in chronological order the most important, milestone battles that the Russian military has ever been involved in. And it does that through the images or people that led the troops through them. Starting from the side of the platform that doesn't have a staircase and going towards the one that does we can see such figures as Dmitry Donskoy, Minin and Pozharsky and Mikhail Kutuzov among others:
After the invasion of Napoleon until 1952, when the station was made, there was only one conflict left to show. And since for Russia the WWII has always been the conflict of all conflicts, entire three final mosaics here were allotted to commemorate it. And following the same logic with people directly commanding the army representing each previous conflict, you would expect to see general Zhukov on at least one of the three. But not at all.
Zhukov at the end of the war was quickly discredited by Stalin and dispatched away from Moscow to a humiliating, insignificant post. And the Soviet propaganda focused on Stalin instead, portraying him at the time as the man who almost single-handedly won the war. So it's not surprising that originally all three final images featured Stalin. And after his death all three were altered to remove him, just like it happened to his images everywhere else.
This one, for example used to look like this (notice identical backgrounds):
The next one used to have Stalin's face together with Lenin's one on that red banner, two circles, one inside the other, until one was politically corrected out of there:
The picture is called 'Soviet troops celebrating victory in Berlin'. Notice swastikas under their feet.
There's also a woman among them. The one on the right in a skirt and with a sub-machine gun. Early Soviet propaganda put quite a lot of effort trying to emphasize equality and emancipation of Soviet women. Equality that always had a slight Soviet tilt on it and tended to stress equality in labor above everything else. Which resulted in a typical image of a Soviet lady in art at the time looking more like the next mosaic: